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Announcing the Recipients of the Evolving Election Administration Landscape Grants

18 new grant projects will launch this fall, helping to advance the field of election science

The MIT Election Data + Science Lab is thrilled to announce that we are awarding new research grants to 18 research teams around the country. These grants, totaling nearly $2 million altogether, will enable the teams to spend most of the next year illuminating how the election administration landscape has changed in recent years. This research will provide both new scientific insights and practical guidance for election administrators around the country.

At the Lab, encouraging new ideas and research on elections is a cause close to our hearts. (There’s a reason we’ve made it one of our primary goals as an organization!) Applying scientific approaches and principles to the practice of democracy helps all of us better understand what has worked and how to address continued challenges—knowledge that ultimately helps improve our electoral systems.

Our newest endeavor, the Learning from Elections project, was designed to use the present moment to lay an empirical foundation for improving U.S. elections. We see a demand for fact-based analysis of election administration as it is today, and how empirically grounded ideas might inform the continued evolution of election law and practice in the years to come.

As part of this project, we specifically sought to support research that illuminates how the election administration landscape has changed in recent years—changes that may have been accelerated or exacerbated by COVID-19, but that pre-existed the pandemic. Last summer, we put out a call for researchers to submit their proposals for projects, grounded in social science methods and theories, that aimed to improve the practice of elections in both the short- and medium-terms. We hope, through the research to come, that the project will provide both new insights and practical guidance for election administrators around the country.

We received an incredible number of innovative, interesting, and exceptionally strong proposals. And today, we are thrilled to be announcing the winners of the Evolving Election Administration Landscape Grants.

There are 18 projects that will be funded as part of this project, which is supported by Election Performance Project, LLC, a subsidiary of the Pew Charitable Trusts. These projects will focus in three general areas—voting modes & experience, misinformation, and institutional capacity—but cover a wide range of more specific questions. We’ve published a full list of the recipients and their projects on the project’s webpage, and will be featuring many of them as their research moves forward—stay tuned!

Each of these projects will add to the growing body of research that can be used to improve elections, and we hope you’ll follow along with our updates. For now, visit the portal page linked above, or read on for summaries of the planned research below:

Grantee Projects

  •  Susan Athey, Thomas Cao, and Herman Donner. Voter Confidence and Electoral Participation.

In the past two decades, 30% of U.S. voters have indicated mistrust in electoral outcomes, according to the MIT Election Lab. Our project seeks to: (1) Utilize messaging on the bipartisan nature of the electoral processes to enhance voter confidence in U.S. election results, and (2) Evaluate whether an increase in voter confidence will lead to more voter registration and higher turnout. 

We plan to conduct a randomized experiment before the midterm elections in November 2022 and match respondents' treatment status with their voting behavior on an individual level based on the subsequent voter file data. We have conducted pilot RCTs with promising results. 

As the first large-scale experiment to evaluate the causal relationship between voter confidence and electoral participation, our project will contribute to research on American politics, political communication, and behavioral/experimental economics. Moreover, our findings will provide actionable insights and policy recommendations for election officials. 

  • Lonna Atkeson, Wendy L. Hansen, and Lisa Bryant. New Mexico and Florida: Election Audits and Election Studies A Research Proposal to Pew/MEDSL.

Our projects attempt to build trust and confidence through transparency, the foundation of election administration.  Therefore, we (1) attempt to assess the quality of election administration through an audit of the various voter data bases generated for the 2022 election in New Mexico including the Voter Registration File (VRF), the E-Poll Book file (EPB) the Absentee Voter File (AVF), and the New Mexico canvass, (2) examine differences in machine counting in a double audit of all the ballots in Leon County, Florida, and (3) provide a continuation of the New Mexico Election Study and the start-up of the Florida Election Study. 

  • Justin de Benedictis-Kessner, Jose Altamirano, Austin Boral, and Madeleine Smith. Civic Roundtable: Retaining Election Officials In A Time Of Uncertainty.

This project seeks to assess this question through an in-depth analysis of several states. We intend to produce: (1) systemic documentation of states' capacity needs, (2) an assessment of the value of inter- and intra-state peer communities to LEOs throughout the election cycle, (3) a focus on individual practitioners to drill down into motivations and roadblocks.

This research will revolve around the direct experience of those on the frontlines in a critical moment for the future of elections. Use of the Civic Roundtable platform, an online tool for LEOs to connect and share best practices, will give direct insights into challenges and strategies implemented on the frontlines in real-time. Through user analytics, engagement metrics, live polling & survey features, the platform will surface strategies LEOs are actively using to combat misinformation, build institutional capacity, manage poll workers/the voter experience, and implement learnings from 2020.

  • Paul Gronke and Paul Manson. The Local Election Official Survey Program: Supporting and Advancing a Scientific and Community Resource to Understand the Evolving Role of Local Election Administrators.

EVIC will be conducting the 2023 Survey of Local Election Officials. This Survey expands upon EVIC's marquee research over five years studying the impact of the evolving election environment on the job experiences, departures, and responses of LEOs. EVIC proposes three innovations to help understand the effects of the 2020 and 2022 elections on LEOs and on election administration.

First, new survey items complement an existing time series of information about the LEO job environment and provide unique insights into the "great resignation" and important corollary issues of staff recruitment, retention, and composition. Second, in-depth interviews with LEOs at different points in their careers provide nuance and detail to survey results. Third, a comprehensive list of the LEO population and jurisdictions will be disseminated, with code for updates, as a public resource to spur research and increase public understanding of local elections and the people who conduct them.

  • Trey Hood. Gauging the Effects of SB 202 on Non-Precinct Voting in Georgia.

In the aftermath of the 2020 election-cycle the Georgia General Assembly passed an omnibus election-reform bill known as SB 202. Since becoming law, SB 202 remains controversial among many in the state who view the measure as potentially acting to suppress voter turnout. Among the provisions in SB 202 are those that affect non-precinct voting (absentee by mail and early in-person).

This project is designed to study the effects on non-precinct voting brought about through implementation of SB 202 during the 2022 general election. Research will proceed along three fronts: collection and analysis of administrative data related to non-precinct voting; a telephone survey of 2022 non-precinct voters in Georgia; and a mixed-mode survey of county election officials. Results will be disseminated to the Georgia Secretary of State and the Georgia Association of Voter Registration and Election Officials, as well as various academic journal outlets. 

  • Seo-young Silvia Kim, Bernard Fraga, and Daron Shaw. Leveraging Historical Voter Files as Accurate Measures of Who Votes: Analyzing and Disseminating Voter File Data to Enhance Understanding of Elections.

Voter files are essential tools for election administrators, campaigns, and, increasingly, election researchers. With changes to election laws due to and in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, however, individual-level records of who registers, who votes, and how individuals vote are under increased scrutiny and heightened demand from the public. We plan to acquire, analyze, and develop best practices related to voter file data, constructing a multi-state historical voter file that can be used by academics and election administrators to better understand the impact of ongoing and future changes to election procedures.

In addition to constructing the file, we will answer two key research questions of importance for both academics and administrators: what is the effective rate of voter registration at the county level proximate to a given election, and how much individual-level variation do we see in the methods used to vote in recent elections?

  • David Kimball, Anita Manion, and Lisa Bryant. Comparative Research on the Implementation of Vote Centers.

The COVID-19 pandemic created pressure on election officials to reduce the number of polling places. Vote centers are one solution to this problem. We plan to investigate the implementation of vote centers in two counties (Fresno County, California, and St. Louis County, Missouri) during the pandemic. These cases offer two different local contexts in terms of state requirements and oversight. Fresno County adopted vote centers in compliance with the California Voter Choice Act, while St. Louis County implemented vote centers without any state guidelines.

In cooperation with local election officials in those counties, we will focus on three areas of inquiry: (1) voter awareness and evaluation of vote centers (based on public opinion surveys), (2) shifts in local voter turnout after the transition, (3) and lessons learned in terms of staff, technology, and procedures needed for successful implementation. This research will help inform other states and localities considering vote centers.

  • Thad Kousser, Mindy Romero, Seth Hill, Judd Choate, Jesse A. Harris, Keith Ingram, and Courtney Bailey. A Research Practice Partnership to Chart Voter Experiences and Test Best Practices for Building Trust in Elections.

We plan to create a research-practice partnership with elections officials in four states—California, Colorado, Georgia, and Texas—to measure how voter experiences are changing over the course of the pandemic and to test the effectiveness of strategies that officials are pursuing to combat misinformation.  We will build upon past relationships with elections officials and our prior scholarship that generated data and publications on changing voter experiences over the 2020 election cycle.  Both would serve as the basis for charting how election administration has evolved in 2022 and providing rigorous evidence to guide actions in the 2024 cycle.

Our goal is to provide evidence of how voter experiences are changing, tests of best practices to combat misinformation, and concrete tools that states and localities can use to build trust in elections going forward.

  • Christopher B Mann and Kathleen Searles. Understanding Election Administration News Coverage and its Effects on Political Attitudes. 

Scholars and practitioners have little knowledge of how the news media covers election administration. To study public attitudes about election administration without understanding the information environment is akin to testing medical treatments without understanding anatomy. Our first goal is to describe the election administration information environment. The second goal is to understand how news media coverage of election administration influences attitudes about elections, including whether information (and misinformation) affects attitudes and whether alternative messages and frames can mitigate potential damage.

Our research will have three stages: First, we will collect and analyze a large-scale dataset on local and national news coverage of election administration. Second, we will use survey experiments to measure the impact of observed coverage and theoretically relevant alternatives on attitudes about elections. Third, we will examine the relationships between local news media coverage and public opinion surveys about election administration.

  • Thessalia Merivaki and Mara Suttman-Lea. Combatting Misinformation and Building Trust in Elections: Assessing Election Official Communications During the 2020 Election Cycle.

This project will measure and assess the information ecosystem cultivated by state and local election officials (EOs) to address misinformation and build trust in elections during the 2022 midterm elections. In partnership with the Algorithmic Transparency Institute, we will collect and code data on EOs' online communications from their official websites, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram accounts. As a part of this work, we will directly engage with EOs to assess their voter education strategies using the #TrustedInfo2022 messaging promoted by the National Association of Secretaries of State as a baseline for communications.

Our data will be merged with the Survey of the Performance of American Elections to assess the relationship between EO communications on misinformation and trust in elections, and voter confidence in the 2022 midterms. A database of these communications will be made available for evidence-based development of voter education policy, program evaluation, and academic research.

  • Brendan Nyhan, John Carey, Brian Fogarty, and Jason Reifler. The Effect of Voter and Election Fraud Misperceptions on U.S. Election Legitimacy.

Claims of widespread voter and election fraud have produced high levels of distrust in elections among Republicans, undermining the work of election administrators and threatening confidence in U.S. democracy. Will the 2022 midterms sustain, reverse, or exacerbate this trend?

To document the nature of the threats to election legitimacy and provide recommendations for how to counter them, we propose to conduct a research program consisting of a panel survey tracking change over time in perceptions of election integrity since 2020 among the same set of respondents; experiments testing the effects of post-election audits and corrective messages debunking false claims of widespread fraud in the 2020 and 2022 elections; and individual-level online behavior data measuring exposure to fraud claims. In combination, these efforts will provide the most precise guidance to date of the nature of the threat to the legitimacy of American elections and how election administrators and other stakeholders can most effectively counter it.

  • Stephanie Puello. At the Confluence of Restoration and Mobilization: Examining the Feedback Effects of Citizen Re-Enfranchisement and the Role of the State in Democratic Stewardship.

Since 2017, the United States has observed a 15 percent decline in the national disenfranchised population. This is partially due to a diffusion of voting rights restoration efforts that have helped citizens with felonies regain their right to vote. To that end, this project will evaluate recently adopted voter restoration policies in four states: Delaware, Florida, Kentucky, and Wyoming, which have significantly increased our national electorate.

The study will examine 1) how such policies affect and are interpreted by their beneficiaries, 2) the extent to which these policies influence neighborhood turnout rates, 3) the relationship between administrative and policy views among local election officials (LEOs) and their propensity to engage in voter mobilization efforts, and 4) how these mobilization efforts mediate constituent turnout. This study will test its propositions using a mixed-methods approach including interviews with policy beneficiaries, a survey of LEOs, and secondary voter file and corrections data.  

  • Jason M. Roberts and Michael Greenberger. Election Worker Recruitment and Retention in North Carolina.

Well trained and competent election officials are a necessary component for the smooth functioning of elections. Since 2019, 43% of Elections Director positions, the top county-level election officials, have turned over in North Carolina. Nationally, greater numbers of election directors are reporting difficulty hiring and retaining poll workers and election judges.

To understand why election workers are leaving their positions, and how they might be retained, we have worked with the North Carolina Elections Director to develop a survey that aims to uncover the reasons election workers leave their positions and the policies that might induce election workers to stay. In particular, we plan to survey all current and some former Election Directors, election staff, poll workers, and election judges with questions related to how concerns about COVID, increased levels of threats and harassment, and changing economic conditions have affected their choices to remain in or leave elections work. Using the results of our survey, we plan to recommend non-partisan policies to increase election worker retention. 

  • Mindy Romero and Paul Gronke. A Proposal for the Evolving Election Administration Landscape Program of the MIT Election  Data and Science Lab.

In the wake of the pivotal 2020 election cycle which produced an increase in both mail voting and distrust in the election system, the Center for Inclusive Democracy and the Elections Information & Voting Center will conduct research on ballot tracking systems in four U.S. states.

Through quantitative and qualitative methods, the researchers will explore ballot tracking use, local election official communication related to ballot tracking options, impact of ballot tracking on voters' trust, and how ballot tracking impacts ballot ejection. With this approach, this research seeks to inform efforts to combat misinformation about the integrity of voting by mail and aims to strengthen democracy in the U.S.

  • Robert Stein and Barry Burden. The Front Lines of Elections: Poll Workers in the New Election Administration Environment.

The 2020 election significantly altered the ways that poll workers are recruited, trained, and operate. As result, local election officials (LEOs) face a challenging environment in which to conduct the 2022 midterm election. The COVID pandemic, threats against election workers, and an aging cadre of experienced poll workers have conspired to reduce the number of persons willing to work as poll workers on and before Election Day 2022.  

A national team has been assembled to partner with LEOs in 13 states and 21 jurisdictions in addressing these challenges to recruiting, training, and assisting poll workers as they perform their duties. Academic researchers involved with this project will collaborate with LEOs in their jurisdictions to survey past and current poll workers. The surveys will enable LEOs to better plan for the 2022 election and evaluate their efforts before the 2024 election. 

  • Wendy Underhill, Kathleen Hale, and Mitchell Brown. The Evolution of Absentee/Mail Voting Laws, 2020 to the Present.

Nearly two years after the 2020 election, the changes that were made to absentee/mail voting laws during and after the Covid-19 pandemic continue to shape election legislation and policy goals. In order to better understand the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic on our election systems, this mixed-methods project will investigate what changes were made to absentee/mail voting laws during and after the Covid-19 pandemic, as well as state legislators' and local election officials' perspectives on those changes.

This research will include a comprehensive overview of all state's absentee/mail voting laws before, during and after the pandemic, including a timeline and analysis of changes; focus groups of state legislators from both sides of the aisle and local election officials; and a culminating report to be published by NCSL.

  • Matthew Weil, Katie Harbath, Rachel Orey, Collier Fernekes, Michael Wagner, and Mara Suttmann-Lea. Whom Can I Trust? Exploring the American Public's Sources of Election Information. 

A poll by George Washington University released in July 2021 showed that amongst the American electorate, Republicans' trust in their local election officials was 20 percentage points lower than Democrats'. For there to be trust in the electoral process, we need to better understand which messages - and messengers - better assuage the concern over the integrity of elections than others.

This project will address this question by conducting a nationwide survey roughly six weeks before the 2022 midterm election. The survey will identify trends in where voters are getting election information, what sources they trust, and how those sources impact their perceptions of the legitimacy of elections. This research will result in actionable recommendations that will be shared with election officials and policymakers to inform their communication strategies going into the midterms and 2024. 

  • Cameron Wimpy and William P. McLean. Exploring Rural Election Administration: With Special Attention to the Mississippi River Delta.

Election administration in rural areas is generally understudied as a particular interest in election science. The Covid-19 pandemic has radically changed the election administration landscape in terms of policies and the methods by which many citizens vote. This study will explore rural election administration in the time of Covid-19 with three distinct phases. After two large- scale quantitative and coding analyses, we plan to undertake a qualitative study of rural election administration among local jurisdictions in seven states of the Mississippi River Delta region.

By engaging local election officials in this area we hope to provide heretofore unexplored depth and contexts—especially in light of the pandemic—to rural election administration in this region and beyond. Our plan includes the engagement and partnership of local election officials in the region. 

Claire DeSoi is the communications director for the MIT Election Data + Science Lab.

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